By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Every month, females of reproductive age release an egg or ovum from one of their ovaries as part of the menstrual cycle. This egg travels from the ovary towards the womb via the fallopian tube, where it may or may not be fertilized by sperm. If fertilized, the egg then buries itself in the wall of the womb (implantation), from where it grows into a fetus.
In the case of ectopic pregnancy, the implantation process occurs outside of the womb, usually in one of the fallopian tubes. Since this space is not suitable for a baby to develop, the fertilized ovum does not grow into a baby. If not detected in time, an ectopic pregnancy can cause severe complications in the mother and can even kill her.
Symptoms of ectopic pregnancy
In the majority of cases, a woman experiences symptoms of ectopic pregnancy between the fifth and fourteenth week of pregnancy. On rare occasions, no symptoms manifest and the ectopic pregnancy is only detected during routine monitoring.
Some examples of ectopic pregnancy symptoms include:
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Abdominal pain, often in one side. The pain may be mild or severe.
- A missed period and other symptoms of early pregnancy such as breast tenderness and bloating.
Detection and treatment
If the ectopic pregnancy is detected early, a medication called methotrexate may be required to stop the fertilized egg developing. The pregnancy tissue then gets engulfed and absorbed by the woman’s body. In about 50% of cases, however, methotrexate is not needed as the egg dies by itself. If the ectopic pregnancy has progressed to a later stage of development by time it is detected, surgery will be needed to remove the egg. If growth of an ectopic pregnancy is not prevented, the growing egg could rupture the fallopian tube and cause dangerous internal bleeding.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc
Last Updated: Jun 24, 2014